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India should now focus on Tahawwur Rana

By B Raman
March 19, 2010 12:21 IST
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Now that David Coleman Headley of the Lashkar-e-Tayiba's Chicago cell has pleaded guilty to the charges against him regarding the Mumbai 26/11 terrorist strikes and the planned attempt to attack the offices of a Danish newspaper, which published cartoons of Prophet Mohammad in 2005, as part of a plea bargain with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, it is settled that he will not be extradited to India and that India will not be allowed to interrogate him.

As a result of the plea bargain, India no longer has any locus standi in the eyes of the American law in the case. All one can hope for is that the FBI will continue to share with India whatever additional information it gets from him till he is sentenced and starts his penalty.

Till then, the FBI can continue interrogating him. One can reasonably expect that the FBI will share with India whatever additional details they get from him so long as those details do not implicate Pakistan.

The FBI's first priority is to have the Lashkar held accountable for the Mumbai strikes due to its emergence as a global jihadi organisation on par with Al Qaeda. Its second priority is to see that Pakistan is not held accountable and to conceal from India any information which links the state of Pakistan with Headley.

What next? What are the options before India? It has been a shrewd move on the part of the Union home ministry to have sought access to Headley's former wife.

According to media reports, she had also visited India -- sometimes with him, sometimes separately. The information at her disposal will be relevant to the case. It is doubtful whether the FBI will respond positively to this request of the Government of India, because of a fear that she might talk to Indian interrogators about Pakistan's role in the terrorist attacks and Headley's links with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence.

If the FBI assists us to have access to his wife, it could help dilute some of the doubts in the minds of large sections of the Indian public about its bona fides in the case. If the FBI drags its feet, one's suspicions regarding the FBI's attempt to protect the Pakistani State from the legal consequences of 26/11 will be strengthened.

There is one other important option available to India -- that is, to seek access to Tahawwur Hussain Rana, the Pakistani-Canadian co-conspirator against whom a separate case has been filed.

He is equally knowledgeable about the 26/11 terrorist strikes. Whereas Headley was not in India immediately before the strikes, Rana was.

According to the second report against Rana filed by the FBI in the court, he was in India in the third week of November 2008. He flew from Mumbai to Dubai on an Emirates Airlines flight on November 21, 2008. He flew from Dubai to China by the same airlines on November, 24, 2008, and from there returned to Chicago via Seoul on November 26, 2008, by Asiana Airlines.

Rana had admitted to the FBI that during his visit to Dubai from November 21 to 24, 2008, he met retired Pakistan army Major Abdur Rehman Hashim Syed alias Pasha who was in touch with Harkat-ul-Jihadi Islami operational chief Ilyas Kashmiri on Headley's behalf, and that he came to know from Pasha about the impending terrorist attacks in Mumbai.

It is clear from the papers filed by the FBI in the court that Rana personally knew Rehman and an unidentified Lashkar office-bearer. It is also clear that Rana was fully aware at least on September 7, 2009, if not earlier, of the Lashkar's plans for future attacks on four targets in India.

The FBI has produced in court extracts from a clandestinely recorded conversation between Headley and Rana in a car regarding future attacks in India.

The interrogation of Rana by Indian investigators is thus as important as the interrogation of Headley. Whereas Headley has no relatives in India, Rana reportedly has relatives in India through his wife's family.

If India can have independent access to him, it can request his Indian relatives to persuade him to talk to us. Normally, certain constraints, which operated in the case of Headley, should not operate in Rana's case.

Firstly, Headley is an American citizen whereas Rana is a Canadian citizen resident in Chicago. Secondly, at least since 1998, Headley was an agent of the US, but there has been no information to indicate any links between Rana and US intelligence. Fears of likely exposure of his links with US intelligence should not operate.

India should now press the FBI for independent access to Rana. The FBI may respond in one of the following ways:

Agree to the access. This will restore damaged Indian confidence in the FBI's bona fides; or

Drag its feet by claiming that since an indictment has already been filed against him, a foreign investigation agency cannot be allowed to question him independently; or

Ask Canadian intelligence to object to the Indian request.

Whatever be the FBI's ultimate response to our request to have access to Rana, our public and leaders will know to what extent the Obama administration is sincere in its professed desire to cooperate with India in counter-terrorism.

One notices the Obama administration following exactly the same stance as the Clinton administration did after the serial explosions in Mumbai on March 12, 1993 -- namely, extend forensic cooperation to India and share intelligence about the perpetrators, but at the same time protect the State of Pakistan from the legal consequences of its involvement in terrorism in India.

Compare the feet-dragging by the Obama administration with the Bush administration's refreshing attitude after the terrorist attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul on July 7, 2008. It was reported that the Bush administration took the initiative in sharing with India whatever intelligence it was able to gather about the role of the State of Pakistan in the attack.

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B Raman